Forty years ago, cyclocross in northern California was a raucous affair. Dannie Nall moved to Santa Cruz in 1969, bringing with him fresh memories of bandit ’cross racing through golf courses and mansion gardens in Santa Monica. Along with Tom Cuthbertson and Charlie Dickson, Nall kicked off a Santa Cruz ’cross tradition that continues to this day.
“I had done what we thought was cyclocross in the ’60s with the Santa Monica Cycling Club,” said Nall. “It was a pretty irreverent affair. We started in a park under a sign that said ‘no bike riding.’ Part of the course cut through a country club golf course. We actually scaled a chain-link fence and went through a garden of a mansion. And the racers included prominent riders, Olympians — serious cyclists. We just used our road bikes.”
Nall, now a product manager at Pacific Cycle, helped put on the first cyclocross event in Santa Cruz in 1970 (’cross racing was already happening by this time in nearby Berkeley, too).
“Those early races were more like jungle ’cross,” Nall said. “The first official Santa Cruz cyclocross was in 1970, probably at UCSC. That was kinda the start. Then it evolved into a series. We had races continually from then on.”
“In 1973 I was part of the first American team that went to the world championships in London,” Nall said. “We got lapped like everybody else. It was quite a test by fire. We showed up with what we thought was proper equipment. We got schooled. The Germans, who were the best amateurs in the world, taught me quite a bit. I wrote it all down, and started sharing it with people when we returned. Within a couple of years, our gear was much better.”
Still, cyclocross bikes and equipment were quite scare in the U.S. in the ’70s. Euro-Asia was importing a few bikes. Shoes typically consisted of soccer cleats with the front cleats cut off. At the time toe straps were still being used — clipless was not yet an option.
Longtime cycling author and veteran racer Jim Langley got in on the action in Santa Cruz around 1980.
“It was a blast. The series was really well organized,” he said. “It didn’t cost anything to enter. It was crazy back then. Toe clips and straps were the biggest issue. The shoes were no good. You were always modifying your shoes. You had to do these flip ups with your toes to get your foot in in a hurry. But nobody could master it except the best guys. We were just in awe of how quick they could get up and going while we were still fumbling and slashing our shins up on metal toe clips.”
Robert Leibold, who later went on to form the successful Velo Promo race organization that runs events in California, put on the Santa Cruz Cyclocross in 1974, and then began organizing the Surf City Cyclo-X Series in 1978. In 1991, Jeff Clark began running the series. Sabine Dukes of Velo Bella took over in 2004, and David Gill assumed control in 2009.
“The only break in the yearly schedule came in 1989,” said Clark, “when the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged most access roads into Santa Cruz County, thus making it impractical to run.”
For Nall, modern cyclocross remains a gratifying venture.
“Cyclocross has grown into what I always thought it could be,” he said. “It’s a great spectator sport. The entry barrier to ride is pretty low. The rules aren’t real strict. It’s an all-weather sport. It’s phenomenal for me to go to a race and there are hundreds of racers, and thousands of fans. I think it’s cooler than heck.”
Editor’s note: Delaney is editor in chief for VeloNews. A journalism graduate of the University of New Mexico, Delaney is responsible for all editorial content online and in the magazine. Delaney joined VeloNews in 2005 as managing editor, having worked previously for The Santa Fe New Mexican, Bicycle Retailer & Industry News and as a freelance writer for various titles. He’s a former (but never very good) Cat. 1 racer. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife and two children.